How Melbourne’s ‘short, sharp’ Covid lockdowns became the longest in the world

It has been a long 19 months in Melbourne. As of Tuesday 5 October, Australia’s second-largest city will have been in lockdown for 246 days – overtaking Buenos Aires as the city that has spent the most cumulative days under stay-at-home orders.

By the time Melbourne’s current lockdown lifts at the end of the month, it will have spent 267 days in lockdown – 45% of the time since the coronavirus pandemic was declared on 12 March 2020.

It’s a strategy that has left the city feeling economically and psychologically depressed, but it has also succeeded, five times in a row, in reducing case numbers to zero.

But in Melbourne’s sixth lockdown the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, has formally abandoned hopes of getting to zero daily cases, replacing it with a goal of getting at least 80% of Victorians over the age of 16 double vaccinated.

Lockdown will lift once the vaccination rate gets to 70%, expected around 26 October. Support for the Victorian government’s handling of the pandemic is waning. Last week’s Essential poll for Guardian Australia found approval of the Andrews government had dropped to 44%.

Compliance with the strict restrictions is also waning. Parties held over the weekend of the AFL grand final – which was moved from Melbourne to the persistently covid-free city of Perth – led to a 50% spike in cases on Thursday, for a record daily figure of 1,438. A further 1,143 cases were recorded on Friday, as the premier extended vaccine mandates to more than a million workers.

Speak to Melburnians and the overwhelming majority say they support the decision of the Andrews government to lock down hard at the first signs of an outbreak.

But opposition to the health measures, while still a minority movement, is growing and has erupted onto the streets. Five thousand people joined a violent omnibus protest last week, fuelled by far-right figures. The protests started outside the offices of the construction industry union on Monday and roamed around the city on Tuesday before ending up at the Shrine of Remembrance, a memorial to Australian soldiers, on Wednesday.

They rallied against vaccine mandates, a two-week shutdown of construction, and the lockdown in general. There were hundreds of arrests and warnings of a super-spreader event, with union staff who responded to the protesters sent into quarantine.

The protests shook a city that was already at the end of its tether, and was then literally shaken by a 5.9 magnitude earthquake.

Victoria’s chief health officer, Prof Brett Sutton, quipped on Twitter: “No more horses of the apocalypse, please”. The city has had enough.

The earthquake – which brought down half a wall in Chapel Street – turned out to be a relatively harmless distraction from an endless cycle of bad news, says Celeste Liddle, a Melbourne-based writer and Greens political candidate.

“I feel like there’s a lot of people who are struggling, but mental health only kind of gets talked about as a weapon to get used against the government rather than an actuality of endless lockdowns and the impact that social isolation can have.”

The Arrernte woman has lived in Melbourne for more than 30 years. It’s always been a vibrant city, the only truly 24-hour city in Australia.

“We often make fun of Sydney because, for a city that’s even bigger than Melbourne it doesn’t have anywhere near as much going on,” she says. “I wonder if that outdoors-all-year-round, even-when-the-weather’s-miserable lifestyle of Melbourne is going to pick up again. I am a bit concerned that, after this, after a lot of businesses have shut down, a once vibrant city is going to be dead for a couple of years. It’s going to take a long time to rebuild.”

Melbourne’s thriving arts sector has been the worst affected, and least supported, industry since the pandemic began.

Kyran Wheatley was preparing to open a comedy club when Melbourne was first put into lockdown in March 2020. It opened for one weekend that July before going back into hard lockdown.

Entertainment venues have been given a tentative reopening date of 8 November by the Victorian government, provided they keep crowds to one person per four square metres. That’s not enough customers to be viable, says Wheatley. He is also concerned people will be less excited to go out if the city reopens with thousands of cases a day, rather than zero.

“That is the big uncertainty at the moment, not knowing how the city will respond to Covid being in everything around you,” he says.

Had he known the city would be locked down for two years, Wheatley says, he would not have opened the club. But despite the setbacks, he supports the lockdown.

“The reason we’ve been in lockdown this long is because we care about whether people die,” he says. “It’s just us choosing to protect life – at a massive expense, a huge expense, but to, as [Australian rapper] Briggs says, protect Nan.”

Australia has become used to avoiding the worst impacts of global catastrophe. But expecting to get through a global pandemic unscathed is unrealistic – and something that has only been achieved by Australia’s most remote city.

“If our expectation is that we all live in Perth where nothing changes, then move to Perth,” Wheatley says.

The current outbreak began when the Delta variant seeded into Melbourne from Sydney in July, fuelling already tense interstate relations between New South Wales and Victoria. On 15 July Andrews announced the fifth lockdown (which almost immediately became the sixth) by saying: “These cases started in NSW, but I’m determined they will end here.”

He spoke with the optimism of past victories – Victoria had quashed two outbreaks with snap lockdowns already this winter, and reduced case numbers to zero following a gruelling 112-day hard lockdown last year.

But this time, the numbers kept rising.

A bungled federal rollout, and then a decision to divert available Pfizer doses to Sydney, which had been in lockdown since June, have been blamed for an initially slow start to Victoria’s vaccine rollout, which picked up pace in August.

Case numbers in NSW began to level off in mid September, as the vaccination rate increased. The numbers in Melbourne are expected to follow suit, but Andrews pointedly told Victorians on Thursday they would have hit those targets sooner had doses of the mRNA vaccines been made available earlier.

Andrews has also criticised Victorians for breaching lockdown restrictions when the end is in sight.

He told reporters on Thursday, reporting the highest ever daily figure, that “plenty of these cases were completely avoidable”.

“Let’s not make [healthcare worker’s] work any harder by making really poor choices and going and visiting mates and friends and family and taking the virus with us,” he said.

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